The nearer Kim and I approached the decision to marry, the more I was filled with a paralyzing fear. Was I ready? Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy?
Then, one fateful night, I shared these thoughts and concerns with my dad.
With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. I’ll tell you,” said he, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love it. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter–as I did!”*
This is the money quote from this post, “Marriage Isn’t for You,” which is going viral on Facebook right now. The post is about a guy who learns from his dad that marriage is about giving yourself up for another person’s happiness, and — Wait, how did Miss Havisham sneak in there?
So listen. I think I understand what he’s trying to say with this post, and I appreciate it. There’s some useful advice about marriage here: Don’t throw in the towel at the first sign of discomfort in your marriage. Your marriage won’t always be actively making you happy, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or can’t be improved. Don’t be self-serving or self-centered; be considerate of your spouse’s needs and how you can serve them.
This is good marriage advice, but it is not universal marriage advice; like most advice, stating it as something for strong universal application instead of a nuanced individual one turns it into something awful.
Here’s where the nuance needs to come in: Depending on the power dynamic in the marriage, a marriage that’s all about what a person can give for their spouse’s happiness can feed condescension, codependence, or other unhealthy enmeshment. This attitude in a marriage says, “Look how happy I make my partner! They could never be this happy without me; I’m going to keep working and working to make them happy, regardless of what they think they need or their own self-actualization.”
And this attitude can feed abuse. Telling people that marriage isn’t supposed to make them happy can lead to people rationalizing away their spouse’s mistreatment of them because making their spouse happy is more important than their own suffering; and it feeds the narrative that’s especially prevalent in Christian culture that an abused spouse (specifically, an abused wife, although gender doesn’t come up in this particular post) has a responsibility to stay in the marriage and keep submitting. Telling someone that “a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’” is a form of gaslighting; it reinforces the idea that even if they’re suffering, well, happiness isn’t the point of being married, is it, and you don’t want to succumb to the “Walmart philosophy,” do you?
As for the author’s comment about the disposable-marriage mentality we supposedly have nowadays — “My father’s advice . . . went against the grain of today’s ‘Walmart philosophy’, which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one” — well, the statistics don’t really bear this out. In fact, the divorce rate has been declining since the 1990s, and data indicate that 21st century marriages are lasting longer than they did a few decades ago. Anecdotally, I know a number of couples my age who have divorced, and not a one of them has made the decision lightly or because their marriage wasn’t sufficiently “all about them.” Rather, in every case, the choice to divorce has been a difficult decision that they made only after exhaustively trying to fix the marriage and ultimately concluding that remaining married was impossible. So I take issue with Seth’s insinuation that the world is full of selfish entitled people who flippantly give up on their marriages.
The truth is, even in a healthy, mutually respectful marriage, putting your partner’s needs above your own is an ideal that’s harder to live up to than you’d think.
I certainly try to sacrifice for Aaron and consider his needs and happiness as important; and I know he does the same for me. We do our best to submit to each other and urge each other to pursue the things that make us feel happy and whole. But I can’t do this for him, and he can’t do this for me, unless we are also considering our own needs.
You know the advice — “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” If I’m not setting healthy boundaries and looking after my own self-care and well being, I don’t have the resources to meet his needs. And sometimes meeting his needs means that I have to say, This part of our marriage isn’t working; we need to find a compromise. I have to acknowledge that it’s not in Aaron’s power to meet all of my needs, just as it isn’t in my power to make him fully happy, either. Sometimes making him happy means urging him to invest in other relationships with people who share some of his interests in things that bore me, just like his making me happy has meant empowering me to spend time apart doing the things that I love that he has no interest in, like deconstructing Victorian literature. And sometimes doing what’s best for our marriage means saying and doing things that make your partner distinctly unhappy — like, Hey, I need you to find a therapist to work on this issue that’s coming between us. Or, No, I can’t work with this. Things have to change.
So no, Seth, you’re only partly right. Marriage isn’t just for you. But it’s not just for your spouse, either. Marriage is for both of you, and ideally, marriage means both partners working together to ensure their own needs are being met, while also doing everything they can to meet their partner’s needs in a healthy way. (And for heaven’s sakes, don’t marry someone that you don’t see yourself having this kind of partnership with. Telling “almost married, single, or even the sworn bachelor or bachelorette” not to base their decision to get married on whether their spouse makes them happy is utterly unhelpful, Seth.) It isn’t either/or; it’s both/and.
*Edited to add: Just to clarify, the second half of the quote here isn’t from the original post, but from Great Expectations. I elided the blog quote into Miss Havisham’s speech because it seemed to more fully express the same unhealthy assumptions about what love and marriage are about; but people have pointed out that it was unclear that I did this, and they’re right. The original quote from the blog post says:
“Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”